The idea of the Saudi Pro League being a looming threat always felt just a touch out there, even if it had come to more prominence last summer. What it certainly looked like was a fertile dumping ground for clubs to offload players who were coming around to an age where a significant transfer fee wasn’t possible, whose use on the field had waned, and who could be coerced into one more big payday to get them off the books. Sure, a couple of prime-age players left for the Middle East, like Ruben Neves, but it was still mostly players entering or already entrenched in their 30s who were cashing in on some blood and oil money.
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What we’re seeing lately is that the Saudi government’s efforts to make the Saudi Pro League on par with Europe’s Big Five are being hamstrung by the fact that some of their new recruits hate playing there.
With the January transfer window opening up, there have been myriad reports about players who arrived in the desert during the summer trying to get out only six months into their deals. The loudest is Jordan Henderson, who traded in his pretty solid reputation both as player and person by taking the money, and is now aching for a move back to the Premier League to preserve his place in the England team for next summer’s Euros. But he isn’t alone.
Updated Jan. 18: Henderson left his Saudi club Al Ettifaq, but won’t return to the EPL. Instead, the English midfielder is headed to Dutch club Ajax.
There are a combination of reasons for this. One, it’s just not a hospitable climate to play in, which one might have thought had dawned on all these players before making the move. It’s temperate now and when the league resumes in February after the Asian Cup, but early-season temps were gross and so will the spring ones be. Even in October, average temps are in the 90s. Probably will be next season too, tends to happen there.
Second, despite the audacious splash of cash to attract names people in Saudi Arabia might recognize, it seems as though very few give a flying fornication, at least enough of one to attend. Henderson’s team Al Ettifaq, for example, is averaging merely 7,800 fans per game. Only four of the 18 teams average more than 10,000 per game. The league as a whole only averages about 8,000 per game. Perhaps sweating one’s balls off in front of no one just doesn’t make for a very exciting work atmosphere.
Third, and perhaps the biggest reason that players are already itching to get out, is it doesn’t make for a very happy home life for some. Given the restrictions, or straight-up oppression, Saudi laws put on women, players’ wives aren’t exactly loving it there. Some have chosen to stay where they were, leading to a long-distance partnership that certainly isn’t for everyone. The language barrier is already a lot to deal with, but going from Europe to Saudi Arabia is something beyond culture shock for the families of players.
Of course, it’s not all that simple. Henderson’s team sucks eggs so far this season, and combined with the lower level of play he might not enjoy losing every week after finding such huge success with Liverpool. Firmino isn’t even playing regularly at Al-Ahli and may just want to find somewhere where he can do so. Benzema faced heavy criticism from fans and media for Al-Attihad, and he might just think he definitely didn’t sign up for that.
Certainly, money cures a lot of ills, and none of these players have actually departed yet. And their stories may not dissuade the next wave from taking the disproportionately large offers next summer as the league continues to try and beef up its product. Yet all of this was predictable, and won’t change in the near future. It’ll still be hot as balls, the level will still be low, the atmosphere several steps below what the players are used to, and the laws probably won’t change much.
Saudi Arabia’s takeover of soccer might just have to wait a while.
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